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Peace and Justice in Worship

We worship someone who came "to preach good news to the poor and to release the oppressed."

Perhaps you've sung "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior." Christine Pohl says her grandma—orphaned at 13 and converted at an outdoor anti-saloon rally—loved that classic by blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby.

But Pohl herself never much liked the song. "I grew up in a secure home. I had trouble seeing how Jesus would pass me by," says the Asbury Theological Seminary ethics professor.

God, of course, moves in mysterious ways, which may explain why Pohl ended up having to sing the song way too often while researching a book on hospitable Christian communities.

"In downtown Atlanta, at a community that welcomes the homeless and disabled, I attended a service held on the lawn. An older African-American man began spontaneously leading 'Pass Me Not.' The group was full of those scorned or overlooked by people who drove or walked by on the busy street.

"I heard it again in another church, large but empty, in a disintegrating neighborhood. The members all drove in from upper middle class neighborhoods. I wondered what it meant to sing the song there.

"Maybe we should sing, 'Pass me not, oh dear disciples, while on Jesus you are calling,'" Pohl says.

Missing Jesus in worship

Christine Pohl; Roy Berkenbosch, a campus pastor at The King's University College; and John Rempel, a theology professor at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, all spoke recently at the Calvin Symposium on Worship and the Arts. They explained that divorcing worship from hospitality, peace, and justice drives a wedge between worshipers and God.

This is an age-old problem. The people in Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25 puzzled over why God didn't respond to their worship. "The Israelites were using worship as a way to manipulate God, to keep him out of public life. True worship must embrace the things that God loves, and God loves justice," Berkenbosch says. That means lamenting our part in unjust structures and praying for world peace-as well as praising God and praying for our congregations.

Pohl adds that when we, like the people in Matthew, don't see the people around us, we miss the chance to offer service and worship to Jesus. "We all ache to be welcomed. Being marginalized, socially invisible, is a hard injustice to endure. The elderly, refugees, troubled teens-people find it hard to believe that the overlooked have anything of value to offer."

Yet she tells many stories of people who encountered God while showing mercy, such as a volunteer who had been struggling with the recent death of his father. Pohl says the man was deeply comforted by a mentally ill homeless man who was able to offer a word of comfort.

Gratitude produces hospitable worship

For Christians most comfortable with practicing piety as a way to experience God in worship, the practice of Christian hospitality may seem burdensome. Pohl suggests three helpful ideas for embracing hospitality in worship.

First, reconnect the idea of hospitality with the Host. Just as we experience Christ's welcome through the Eucharist, we can welcome others into fellowship with God.

Second, notice how hospitality is gospel, good news, both for those who receive it and those who offer it. "Some Christians feel crushed by the idea of having to do yet one more thing for the kingdom. But making a place for others can make room for God to be present with us. It puts us on holy ground and connects us with an ancient tradition," Pohl says.

Finally, reconsider your focus. "Entertainment focuses on the host. Hospitality focuses on the guest. We know we've lost touch when our satisfaction in worship becomes most important. Worship is most hospitable in congregations that eagerly include people in shared traditions. For example, congregational prayers and liturgies could mention more about the elderly or frail," she says.

Worship sustains our hope for peace and justice

Bringing the world's needs before God in prayer is an essential reason for the church to gather in worship, according to John Rempel. "God is waiting to bless us. The church calls down God's grace into settings of brokenness and potential. As we pray for peace and justice, we become agents of God's love and potential."

It's easy for most Christians to recognize the biblical call to reconciliation between God and individuals. But Rempel says the church "can't separate reconciliation with God from reconciliation with the neighbor. Peace is an essential message of the Bible."

Before becoming a seminary pastor, Rempel served Mennonite churches as a parish pastor, campus pastor, college professor, and Mennonite Central Committee liaison to the United Nations. All these experiences helped him develop well-reasoned, workable suggestions for bringing peacemaking into worship.

Anyone who starts caring about and acting on peace and justice issues risks growing weary and cynical. Justice-oriented Christians who neglect worship will miss as much of God's blessing as pious Christians who avert their eyes from God's "other" children.

As Berkenbosch explains, people who do "the hard work of intervention, advocacy, and protest" get rubbed raw by a world that resists change, including fellow Christians. But when worship includes the whole of God's plan for renewing the cosmos and each creature, then this grand story shapes every worshiper.

"Worship is the time and place where God's people are immersed in this hopeful vision. We recite the story, celebrate it in song, long for it in prayers, interpret it in sermons, sign it in sacraments, explore its breadth in the lectionary, and practice it in community life.

"Without worship to sustain active involvement in the world, people dry up. Practicing just worship keeps together what God will not allow to be torn apart," Berkenbosch says.

Learn More

Want to be more hospitable? Read Christine Pohl's essay on early Christian hospitality and an interview about her book Making Room.

Download a banner pattern to help worshipers visualize the cry for justice. Listen to three worship songs about justice. Read dozens of tips about including justice in specific worship service elements. Find all of these in Reformed Worship theme issue on justice and worship.  

Find peace- and justice-oriented prayers, songs, liturgies, and sermon anecdotes relevant to Australians, U.K. Christians, and, in North America, African Americans, the Christian Reformed Church, Evangelical Lutherans, and First Nations Christians. Follow these tips for singing Latin American, Asian, and African songs.

Address difficult questions about class barriers that prevent truly hospitable worship. Do your services inadvertently reinforce injustice? Regarding poverty, do your congregation's beliefs match its actions? If not, then check out the book What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty and these fantastic stewardship resources.

Start a Discussion

  • At a conference on justice and worship, Argentinean musician Pablo Sosa explained why it's important to "put your body into worship." Alison Adam, a worship educator from the U.K., talked about why God sometimes aims to disturb us in worship. What makes you feel free or uncomfortable in worship? Which physical actions or messages make visitors feel welcome or wary?
  • Christine Pohl suggests looking around at a service and asking, "Who's not here? Who should we invite?" How would you answer these questions in your congregation?
  • How clear are the connections between the Sunday newspaper and what your congregation prays, says, sings, or hears about in Sunday worship?
  • What local, national, or world needs does your church most often pray about? Which issues do you ignore-and why?

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to use more peacemaking and justice resources in your congregation's worship? 

  • Have you modified your sound system to accommodate people with hearing difficulties or started to use interpreters for the deaf? Have you asked deaf worshipers to share their stories?
  • Have you volunteered to share your expertise in specific peace or justice issues with congregations who need help or encouragement?
  • What are the best ways to promote discussions between Christians who find themselves on opposite sides of peace and justice issues?
  • What insights have startled, moved, or otherwise affected your church as you've begun to more intentionally include peace and justice in your worship?